It is impossible to put a coin in a slot and have history come out. For the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction. All historians know this in their souls.
--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Harvey Milk (1930-1978)
The death of Harvey Milk, back in 1978, was an event—one of those historical footnotes in our lives that we are aware of, from a news story, or some other announcement--but often, it never goes far beyond that level of recognition.
I was a sophomore in high school when Milk, along with San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone, were murdered by San Francisco supervisor, Dan White. I probably read the news account in my local daily newspaper, at the time, as I began my day before school with a newspaper, over breakfast. I’m sure I also caught something about it on the evening news. I vaguely remember White’s famous “Twinkie defense.” (This well-written SF Chronicle article shows that this so-called “Twinkie defense,” was in fact a myth. It also provides some valuable background on White.)
Growing up in a rural state like Maine, much of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s seemed far away. The Vietnam War, the protests, the changes happening in American culture were often just images in the nightly news, or black and white newsprint characters. The issues facing men like Harvey Milk—recognition and acceptance of the gay lifestyle—seemed hundreds, or thousands of miles away.
Being raised Roman Catholic, the strictures against homosexuality were part of my religious inculcation. Additionally, society was not as accepting of alternative lifestyles thirty years ago, as they are today.
Milk: The Movie
My wife and I went to see the movie, Milk, the first Saturday in February. I had been hearing the buzz about the film, and every review I read was positive about Gus Van Sant’s movie. I like Van Sant as a filmmaker, and I’ve always respected Sean Penn’s acting, so we decided to take a trip into Portland and catch it.
I’m always a bit leery of Hollywood’s treatment of a multifaceted and complex human subject like Harvey Milk. There is a tendency to play loosely with history, embellishing facts, or short-changing realities, in an attempt at advocacy moviemaking, or creating an unrealistically hagiographic account of Milk, painting him as a martyr figure.
To the movie’s credit, from the very beginning, this biopic had the look and feel of something much bigger. Penn, who deserved his Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk, is sitting at a table, speaking into the kind of tape recorder we used back in 1978. He is leaving behind a record of the things that were going on, in the event that he was assassinated. From what Milk was saying, it was obvious that he knew at some point that his death was inevitable, and maybe even imminent. From there, the story moves backward, and we see Milk in New York, before he became radicalized politically. He was just another gay man of the time, living a double life, closeting who he was in the 9-5 world of work, and also looking for love and acceptance on the personal side.
Two things in particular resonated with me and made a strong impression in seeing the film. First, Milk was 40-years-old when his political “coming out” took place. I can identify with that because I was about 40 when my own life changed, and I experienced my own reinvention, much like Milk did. Second, the movie uses actual footage from the 1960s and 1970s, showing how the police at the time, routinely rounded up gay men (and also, women), for being in a bar frequented by gays and lesbians. The archival footage shows the brutal treatment perpetrated on people that were merely following their own natural proclivities to be together.
Sitting in the darkened movie theater, I was trying to think back 30 years ago, coming to terms with the realities of that time, I leaned over and said to my wife, Mary, “were they rounding up gays when we were in high school?” Obviously, they were.
Milk moved to San Francisco, from New York, in 1972. He settled in the Castro District of the city, known simply as “the Castro.” The neighborhood was working-class, with a large contingent of those of Irish descent having settled there in the 1930s.
The Castro came of age as a gay center following the Summer of Love, which was centered in the neighboring Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. That summer, tens of thousands of middle-class youth from all over the United States descended on Haight-Ashbury, spilling over into the Castro. Prior to that, the Castro had become a settling place for displaced gay men, when according to documentary filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, the U.S. military offloaded thousands of gay servicemen in San Francisco during World War II after discharging them for being homosexuals. Many settled in the Castro, and helped cement the neighborhood’s reputation as a place for homosexuals to move to.
With the neighborhood’s burgeoning gay population, the Castro was the perfect place for Milk to settle, and launch his own political career.
The Castro became a place where many gay men began to feel a sense of personal, economic, and political empowerment. Milk became a local businessman and community leader, opening Castro Camera, which became a meeting place for those interested in politics and activism.
While a Hollywood script would have Milk ascend to political stardom overnight. In reality, Milk ran unsuccessfully, three times, before winning his seat as city supervisor, in 1977.
It was during this time that California Sen. John Briggs (R-Fullerton) launched Proposition 6, a statewide initiative that would, in essence, permit school boards to fire teachers who acknowledged their homosexuality. This created a firestorm in the gay community, as members felt that Briggs, along with Anita Bryant, who campaigned up and down the state for its passage, were waging all out war against their community.
In October of that year, LA Times staffer Robert Scheer asked Briggs if “simply being a homosexual and admitting to that fact is grounds for firing.”Briggs replied: “That is correct. If you are a homosexual, publicly admitted or practicing, that is automatic grounds for the removal of a teacher or a school administrator or an aide or a counselor.”
It’s hard to fathom this legislation now, and its far-reaching, and chilling implications it posed for gay teachers. Interestingly, Ronald Reagan, who has become the patron saint of Republicans that probably were supportive of efforts like Proposition 6, actually opposed it at the time. Reagan was very public in his opposition to the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, answered reporter's questions about the initiative by saying he was against it, and, a week before the election, and even wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it.
To Reagan’s credit, he was very well aware of the future fallout that could come from his opposition, because he had decided he would be running for president, in 1980. Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon, wrote that Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue but nevertheless chose to state his convictions.”
Reagan stated in his November 1st editorial for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this.” ["Editorial: Two Ill-advised California Trends". Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. p. A19.]
Bryant was brought in by Briggs, to rally support from conservative Protestant congregations in the state. She spread a wealth of misinformation about homosexuals, in churches, and elsewhere, such as this lie: “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”
Harvey Milk’s Politics
Milk has done a great service in bringing Harvey Milk back into clear focus for countless Americans, particularly members of the LGBT community, looking for someone to frame their politics moving forward into the 21st century. To see Milk as merely a gay activist, and leave it there however, is to miss the larger context of the man, his issues, and ultimately miss the importance of who he really was.
While the movie briefly touches on the populist nature of his politics, particularly in referencing that he had partnered with the organized labor in building a broad based political coalition in running for office, Milk in fact recognized that working strategically with unions and the city’s fragmented ethnic and racial groups were keys to building the kind of alliance that would help Milk organize groups of minorities into a majority voting block. This is born out in an NPR interview last November, with Anne Kronenberg, who coordinated Milk’s successful campaign for the city’s Board of Supervisors.
Milk supported the local Teamster’s Union, during a local boycott of Coors Brewing. This allowed the openly gay candidate to receive the endorsement of both the Teamsters and the local Firemen’s union.
Walter Kaplan, who was Milk’s lawyer in the 1970s, explained his pragmatic approach to pulling together support from various groups.
“Harvey built coalitions and understood the dynamic of how politics works.”
In his campaign speeches from the years 1973-1977, Milk regularly outlined plans to bridge the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots which "machines" across the country were creating. The core of Milk's political populism was the simple belief that “the American Dream starts with the neighborhoods--if we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods.” The city could only be saved by the industry of its residents, Milk maintained, not “governmental charity.” Rather than “face the problems it's created,” and taking “responsibility for the problems it's ignored,” the machine sought to bribe the urban poor with welfare programs. Instead of empowering the urban poor, these programs had actually trapped them in “concrete jungles,” caged within a vicious cycle of dependence. In order to break this dependence, Milk maintained, the neighborhoods must firmly grasp the reigns of power, in order to lead the city “down the route no major city has ever tried.” [from The Mayor of Castro Street, by Randy Shilts, St Martin's Press (New York), 1982, p. 362.]
My hope, particularly after seeing the movie about his life, is that a new generation of activists will rise up from the ranks of the GLBT community, and turn their attention and energy not just to sexual politics that can be divisive (as once again was witnessed in California, with Proposition 8), but honor the memory and vision of Harvey Milk in reaching across the divide to all Americans, gay and straight, to focus on areas of social justice, including economic justice for everyone.